With reference to climbing, the term ‘free solo‘ is quite easy to define. It is the act of climbing without a partner, without a rope, and using only your hands and feet to move across the rock. You’re not allowed to hang onto anything that you can wedge or hammer into a crack in the rock. It gets slightly complicated with the inclusion of ‘bouldering’ and ‘highball bouldering’ into the system. Essentially, bouldering is making moves without a rope very close to the ground, where a fall usually results in a sheepish grin and a bit of banter from your mates. Highball bouldering is a bit more serious. You could be several metres up, and a fall could result in some bruising, maybe a snapped ankle, and a bit of genuine concern from your mates (along with the banter). Above this, you’re free-soloing. A fall cannot be allowed to happen. If it does, it will be what our American cousins would call a ‘life changing experience’. In all probability, it will actually be the last life changing experience you’ll ever have.
Somewhat trickier to explain is the mental aspect of this style of climbing. Some see it as the ultimate expression of climbing. Freedom to move without the encumbrance of ropes and a harness. Freedom to critically assess every risk, and to decide on a plan of action. Freedom to accept the full ramifications of making a bad decision and the effect that this will have on the rest of your life. It may well be that the rest of your life in this situation will be very exciting, and measured in seconds, but it’s a personal choice to put yourself in that place. Top exponents of this style of climbing, for example, Alex Honnold, have made some audacious and celebrated ascents of staggeringly long and technical climbs, where both physical and mental abilities are pushed to extremes. On the other hand, some see it as unacceptably selfish. It may well be that the climber makes the choice to climb without protection, but ask the people that had to identify the remains of John Bachar or Derek Hersey whether they think the risks are acceptable, or purely selfish.
Personally, I think that it’s up to the individual. But you’d never catch me doing it, for two reasons. Firstly, you need to have an exceptionally cool head, and an ability to think clearly when faced with an imminent and painful death. This is not the mindset of a normal person. Secondly, I’m just a big scaredy-cat. I struggle with leading anything above UK grade HS, which is pretty much kindergarten level climbing.
So, I guess you know what’s coming next. Yes, I got myself so far out of my depth that I scared myself silly. I feel a complete arse for doing it. Actually, I feel a completely selfish arse for doing it, as had things gone wrong (and they very easily could have done) it would have involved Faye & the girls watching me being scraped up and dumped into a rescue helicopter. So, let’s go back to the start…
“Blimey…” I thought “…I wouldn’t fancy going over there” as I strolled along the cliffs ringing the stunningly beautiful Polurrian Bay near Mullion in Cornwall. From the top, it looked steep, unforgiving, and more than anything else, a bloody long way down. Still, I enjoyed the view as I pottered along a few miles of the South West Coast Path. It’s still an ambition of mine to complete this walk one year – maybe when I’m older and wiser and have a bit more time on my hands.
“Hmmmm…” I thought “…if I go up that crack, I reckon I could boulder my way up a couple of metres there” was the thought process two days later as I stood at the bottom of the cliff. From the top, sea-cliffs are scary places. All the forces acting on you are out of your control, and will try and kill you. From the bottom, it’s a different perspective. Your own ability and confidence come into play, and what was once an undefeatable foe becomes a personal challenge. The rules under which you accept this challenge are a personal choice. You can set up a top-rope, and complete the climb in (relative) safety. Or you can get a willing partner, and lead the climb, again in relative safety, but with a bit more spice. Or you can go for complete freedom and free-solo the climb. I had no real intention of doing any of these things. Just some harmless bouldering above the beach on good rock, with the sun shining on my back. A perfect end to the summer holiday. And so it began. My walking boots weren’t ideal for this kind of climbing, but I just got on with it. I traversed left, and up, each move feeling fluid and confident. I was in no danger at all – not because of the situation, but because I simply knew I couldn’t fall. Everything felt perfect, like a string of 1:15 laps of Snetterton without breaking sweat. I looked down at my feet. I guestimated five metres up. Really above my normal comfortable limit, but the landing was soft sand, and all the moves were easily reversible in my current frame of mind, so I looked up, and saw a nice ledge about three metres away, and made the instant decision to climb up to it.
At this point, even though I didn’t know it, I was free-soloing. To get to the ledge I had to make a couple of dynamic moves that I knew at the time I couldn’t reverse easily, if at all. But I was climbing so well within my limits both physicall and mentally, that I didn’t consider that a problem.
About four good moves later, I stood on the ledge. It wasn’t as big as I thought, but that wasn’t my major cause for concern. The rock in front of my face, and from here on upwards had turned from solid dependable compact rock to that dreadful loose shale that the South-West coast is famous for. I looked up, and saw just more of the same, for maybe another seven metres, followed by three metres of sloping grass up to the top. I looked down to my feet. The hold they were on was good, but the next step up was loose, crumbly, and only had room for one foot. I looked up for a solid handhold, and grabbed a good flake. It fell off in my hand and went clattering to the beach, maybe ten metres below now, shattering on the jagged boulder now directly below me. I looked below my feet, and realised that I was now completely committed to completing the climb, as I couldn’t reverse my position.
I now realised that I was free-soloing. The next few minutes would directly affect the quality (not to mention length) of the rest of my life. My leg started shaking involutarily, in a movement known to climbers all over the world as ‘Elvis Leg’. I was physically comfortable in my current position, so I rested, and realised what an immense cock I was for getting myself into such a predicament. I had two choices. Carry on, or call for a rescue. Both options carried with them the distinct possibility of inconveniencing several people, notably the Cornish Coastguard and the surgical team who would have to put my legs back together if I survived the fall. Because I’m English, I decided that I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss, so I thought I’d carry on. I put my foot on the next hold, and tested it with some body weight. It moved, but I judged that I could stand up on it, and reach a flake high above me. If the flake held, I would be safe. If it fell off like the last one, I would fall. Simple as that. My life condensed into one move. And the fact that I’m typing this without resorting to employing the services of an ALAN (AfterLife Area Network) means that the flake held.
I breathed. Deeply, and rhythmically. The next move meant pulling on the flake, until I could get two fingers of my left hand into a deep, and secure pocket, and from there a flake line ran upwards, that I could layback off, for about three or four metres or so. It was scarily loose. Before committing any weight to each move, I would test the flakes, and I reckon nearly half of them just came away. My Elvis Leg was subsiding now, but I was deeply scared, and completely out of my depth. The rock was nearly finished now, and all I was left with was a 60 degree slope of thin grass in dry soil.I hauled myself over the edge, about twenty metres above the beach, and looked at my hands, bloodied and scarred by the sharp edges left as the rock crumbled. I looked over the edge at where I had come from. “Blimey…” I thought “…I wouldn’t fancy going over there”.
This wasn’t climbing. It was pure luck. And I’m a complete arse for getting myself in that situation. I should have known that the rock would be rubbish above where the sea reaches. I did know that. I just forgot about it in the euphoria of the moment. That bad decision forced me into a series of actions that could so easily have profoundly affected the rest of my life. I walked back around to the beach, sat down, and looked up at the cliff again. My perspective had shifted.